Under Transplan's current draft proposals, even preliminary studies to address the increasingly hazardous road would not commence until mid-2008 - a delay called "shameful" by David Piepho, a member of Discovery Bay's town council.
"To not even talk about doing an environmental study, let alone start work on any road improvements, for two years is unacceptable, especially when people are dying on Vasco today," said Piepho.
Walter MacVittie, chairman of the East County Regional Planning Commission, echoed Piepho's concerns and expressed dismay at the lack of immediate funds being allocated from sources like Measure J, and ECCCRFFA (East Contra Costa County Regional Fee and Financing Authority) to improve safety on Vasco.
"I'm disappointed to see a lack of substantial funding on that (Vasco) corridor, especially in light of this month's fatalities," he told Transplan members who convened at a special meeting in Antioch last week to discuss available funding for major East County transportation projects through 2015.
The figures don't make for pretty reading. The stark economic reality is that planners are staring at a $500 million revenue shortfall for current and planned roadway projects. One of the projects that might be put on the back burner is Vasco safety enhancement.
According to Transplan's draft proposal, Vasco has taken a back seat to higher-profile regional projects like the widening of Highway 4 through Antioch, the Highway 4 Bypass and eBART. Those three projects are set to grab the lion's share of funds from Measure J (a half-cent transportation sales tax) and ECCCRFFA (that collects money from local developers on new houses) that are being earmarked until 2015.
Contra Costa County is only budgeting $321,000 for 2008 and $333,000 in 2009 for Vasco improvements. Meanwhile, Alameda County has allocated $3 million, but not until 2010. However, all of that money is being earmarked exclusively for preliminary planning and studies, and it falls miles short of the $200 million estimated to be necessary to fix Vasco.
And that's in stark contrast to the $63 million being earmarked by Transplan for Highway 4 widening alone in 2008 and 2009, according to its current draft proposal.
The long-term prospects are not much brighter for Vasco. Up to the year 2015 the Highway 4 widening is slated to get $205 million and the Bypass will receive $162 million. But for the same period only $654,000 is being set aside for Vasco improvements.
MacVittie isn't surprised by that miserly allocation and said that Transplan has over the past six or seven years been pre-occupied with road projects for what he calls the "west side of East County," specifically on Highway 4 projects.
"I'd like to see some of the emphasis shifted to the far East County roads. That's only reasonable, as Vasco has become more of a regional East County (artery) and many Pittsburg, Antioch communities also use it for commuting to and from work. I understand that Highway 4 is a priority, but Vasco has been a big problem for a very long time now."
Antioch Mayor Don Freitas conceded that Measure J and ECCCRFFA funds would not be able to cover Vasco improvements in the near term at least. "A lot of those funds are going to developing Highway 4," he said. "We're not sure whether they can cover Vasco, even though we'd like to see a bit going to it."
The lack of funds means that any meaningful construction work for fixing Vasco could feasibly be pushed back until after 2015, which is much too late for Piepho and MacVittie.
"Vasco is becoming more and more dangerous for commuters and we have to address it sooner rather than later. I don't think we should be pushing off any project to future years. Rather we should be earmarking more resources to it," MacVittie said.
"Even the money we're earmarking for preliminary studies in the plan have been pushed back two years. Alameda has earmarked $3 million for 2008 and now that's even been pushed back to 2010."
Piepho also pointed out that since the improvements directed at Highway 4 and the Highway 4 Bypass project are aimed at increasing traffic volumes and flows, it might compound the problems on Vasco.
"The push to finish the Bypass project will simply dump more traffic on Vasco since it connects directly to the south side of that road," Piepho warned.
Transportation planners point out, however, that Vasco needs to clear a full environmental study before any substantial funds can be directed at the project. But that's something that Piepho thinks is unnecessary bureaucracy and a waste of money.
"The funding earmarked by Contra Costa for 2008 and 2009 is being earmarked only for the preparation of environmental documents," he said. "But didn't we already draw that up when the road was originally built and shouldn't that study still be valid? We're making our own bureaucracy."
Julie Bueren, Contra Costa County Public Works Deputy Director, said her team is tentatively putting together a schedule and aims to have a hearing next month. "We're hoping to fast-track that environmental process so that we can get money for the project quicker," she said.
When the new Vasco Road was built over a decade ago to connect the Brentwood area to Interstate 580, it looked like a pleasant scenic drive for East County people getting to and from Pleasanton/Livermore. But following rapid residential growth in East County, the winding, undivided two-lane road has evolved into a heavily used commuter corridor.
An estimated 19,000 to 24,000 vehicles now use the road daily, up from the reported 16,000 to 18,000 in 1997. At peak hours between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., Vasco has nearly bumper-to-bumper traffic often flowing at between 55 and 65 mph.
The heavy traffic volumes coupled with speeding drivers passing a couple of feet from one another is a potentially lethal cocktail. Since 2000, 16 fatalities have taken place on Vasco in Contra Costa County (statistics are not available for Alameda County), making it one of the most dangerous roads in the state. Last month, four people died on Vasco Road in a collision involving three vehicles.
Most of the recent work done to improve road safety on Vasco has focused on implementing bright yellow lane delineators, rumble strips and highly visible warning (radar) signs posted along the road and introducing doubled traffic fines for speeders along some hazardous sections.
Both Piepho and MacVittie agree these are simply quick fixes that address the symptoms, but not the root cause of the problem.
"Up to now we've been working with state grants to help change driver behavior, not fix the road. But you can fix driver behavior only so much," Piepho said.
He referred to what he called the "Three E Principle" - engineering, education and enforcement.
"The fact of the matter is that Vasco was never engineered correctly," said Piepho. "Education has been to slow down drivers. And CHP has been out there writing a lot of tickets. But that hasn't stopped people from drifting out of their lanes.
"We have to go back to the basics and look again at engineering. It's not the drivers that is the real problem - it's the road."
Piepho would like at a minimum to see the erection of a central concrete barrier between the two opposite lanes. But MacVitte won't be satisfied with anything less than a divided four-lane roadway or, better still, six lanes.
Clearly there is no easy solution to re-engineering Vasco. The million-dollar question is how much it will take to make it safe. No one seems to know exactly for sure.
But planners do know it will cost a lot of money - around $100 million for the median barrier alone, and more than double that to provide two lanes in each direction. Some estimate a six-lane road would cost as much as $300 million to $400 million to construct.
"The long-term goal should be to have four divided lanes. I'd hate to see money being spent on building just a central divider when it's clearly a short-term and expensive solution," MacVittie said.
Also the road infrastructure in far East County is generally underdeveloped and therefore is more expensive to develop. For example, the way that Vasco snakes through the hills in narrow curves makes it tricky, and therefore more costly, to widen or realign.
With funds at a premium, Freitas said that Vasco improvements should be a collective of the three counties impacted by Vasco's heavy cross-commute traffic: Contra Costa, Alameda and San Joaquin. But the miserly funds allocated by Contra Costa and Alameda are clearly inadequate.
"The biggest challenge is getting support from Alameda," Freitas said.
Alameda County has done some work to straighten out sections of the road on its side of the county line - although this work was done by the Alameda County Water District and PG&E, who are moving their facilities in anticipation of new road alignment.
Nevertheless, the general feeling among Transplan members is that Alameda County isn't pulling its weight. MacVittie said that in the past, some of Alameda's local politicians had palmed off Vasco as a problem for Contra Costa constituents, not theirs.
"But it's their problem as well. A lot of Contra Costa residents work in Alameda. They are bringing healthy tax revenue into that county, which helps local residents," MacVittie said. "And if Vasco shuts down due to accident, then people working in Alameda will be late, which does make it their problem to some extent."
MacVittie said that Contra Costa County officials are also working with San Joaquin County.
"They need to be brought into the mix," said MacVittie. "The rapidly developing Mountain House community (in San Joaquin County) is starting to impact local roads. New commuter traffic coming from J4 is starting to hit Vasco."
Planners acknowledge Vasco as a tri-county issue and advocate closer cooperation between various agencies.
"This has to be a collective effort from Contra Costa, Alameda and San Joaquin. Sure, finding funding is a challenge. But if we are communicating, we can build those bridges quicker," Bueren said.
But Piepho went further, saying it's the duty of regional leaders to eke out funds wherever they might come from.
"The community is asking us as regional leaders to do our job and turn over every rock for funds and bring them all together. And you guys are a big rock," he said, directing his comments directly at the Transplan committee.
Piepho, however, bemoaned the lack of a coherent or coordinated strategy going forward.
"Today we don't have a plan in place for doing that," he said. "We don't have a clue how much money is available to fix Vasco or where it will all come from. All I see is bits and pieces.
"We need a central lead agency, a team captain, preferably from Contra Costa, to proactively go out to Transplan, ECCCRFFA and other state agencies to identify small pots of money, however small or large they are."
According to MacVittie, the game plan is to push Vasco to the top of Transplan's agenda and put it on an equal footing for funding with other regional roadway projects.
"We need to set it as a priority, to get it as a top line item discussion and make sure it's not pushed behind Highway 4," he said.
MacVittie points out that the prioritization of funding ultimately rests with Transplan committee votes.
"If East County residents knew that the plan was to do nothing until at least 2015 they would storm offices and kick everyone out," Piepho said.
If so, and with elections just around the corner in November, Vasco could well be an issue that piques the attention of local politicians.
Freitas suggested that one of the reasons why Vasco has been unable to attract county funding readily is because the problem "was always framed as a growth issue. It's not. It's an economic development issue as well. People need Vasco to get to the Livermore Lab and get to Silicon Valley to work on time."
Freitas hopes the dialogue around Vasco road improvements will change from residential development to economic development issue.
"But above all, it's a safety issue," Freitas reminded everyone at the meeting.
The topic of residential and economic growth remains a highly contentious issue in East County today, and local officials are trying to balance new housing development with adequate supporting road infrastructure.
"Certain environmental groups have threatened to sue over Vasco widening, saying it promotes growth. But that growth is already there," said Piepho.
The problem seems to stem from the language of Measure J that does not allow funds to be used for the construction or expansion of roads outside of designated urban limit lines. Measure J funds can be used for planning, however.
"Environmentalists have gotten in on the Measure J language and are creating road blocks to getting funding for Vasco, saying that any expansion will help developers wanting to grow in the area," MacVittie said.
"But you don't control growth with dangerous roads," Piepho said. "Vasco was always an underdeveloped road. Highway 4 is about getting more traffic through. But Vasco is not about relieving congestion. It's 100 percent about safety. "
Admittedly there is not a lot of public Measure J and ECCCRFFA money out there, and transportation planners face the unenviable task of making one transportation dollar stretch to two and are staring at shortfalls across all of their projects.
But it's not all doom and gloom for Vasco. Other possible sources are emerging. On Sept. 5, State Senator Tom Torlakson will hold a special meeting in the Brentwood City Council Chambers to explore more funding options for Vasco safety. Torlakson is also proposing Proposition 1B, a $20 million bond measure, to fund road improvements.
Piepho and MacVittie both have personal vested interests in making Vasco safer, using the road regularly. Piepho himself survived a major head-on collision on Highway 4 in Brentwood five years ago, which motivated him to work with Torlakson to establish a safety corridor between the Brentwood and Discovery Bay stretch of that road. He was also part of the task force responsible for introducing double fine zones on Vasco.
MacVittie and his wife use Vasco to get to work every day, and said they were three and five minutes in front of the fatal accident last month.
"Naturally things like that really hit home," he said.